When Addressing the Abilities Community, Words Matter and People Come First
The words we use and why we use them play an essential role in building an inclusive culture. Language (and the questions it forces people to ask and consider) can increase visibility and empathy for groups that have been marginalized or misunderstood in the past.
The terminology surrounding disability is changing quickly and for the better, relying more on specificity and sensitivity. In response, the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) has created its own style guide, providing historical background on individual terms and their recommendations for usage, to meet these needs and track the evolution of an inclusive vocabulary.
Most of these guidelines rely upon using language that is person-first, essentially asking the person in question how they’d like to be described or referenced whenever possible, or identity-first, describing an individual through the lens of their disability first. It’s also important to consider regional differences and consult the appropriate resources, such as the Disability Association of Singapore’s glossary or terminology from the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
For people who prefer person-first language, this choice recognizes that a human is a person first. Their disability doesn’t define them. For people who prefer identity-first language, that choice is about empowerment. It indicates their disability isn’t something to be ashamed of, but is, in fact, a part of who they are.
Disability is not monolithic, and it’s essential to consider personal preferences, think of the individual, and ask questions when referring to and serving as advocates for members of this community. While we all inevitably make mistakes, it’s essential to learn from them and commit to doing better in the future. Below are just a few examples from the NCDJ’s style guide – a helpful primer for everyone to consult this Abilities Awareness Month and beyond.
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